The Times West Virginian

April 3, 2014

Smallwood brings versatility to WVU offense

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — A year ago much was made of Charles Sims’ transfer from Houston to West Virginia University, but much of it was miscast for he was seen mostly as a running back who would be able to help out in the passing game.

No one really understood, however, just how versatile and talented he was, almost defining what coach Dana Holgorsen was looking for in what can only be labeled the running back of the future.

The idea probably grew out of Tavon Austin’s performance at WVU.

Holgorsen had seen him with his size and speed and elusiveness as the ultimate slot receiver, but when the running game failed to be as productive as expected during Austin’s senior year, he became more involved, even to the point that Holgorsen stunned Oklahoma but using him not out of the slot but as a tailback and having him set a school record with 325 rushing yards.

Enter Sims, who was the kind of hybrid back that the NFL is now into, which has raised his draft stock considerably. He not only became a 1,000-yard rusher for the Mountaineers but was tied for the leading receiver of the team, either on bubble screens or running out of the slot position.

Now he’s gone but similar stuff is expected out of his understudy, Wendell Smallwood, a workaholic running back who is expected to do a good deal of work out of the slot, especially with WVU as deep as it is at the running back position.

“Wendell is probably our second-best inside receiver right now. He’s a running back, but it’s much like Charles Sims last year. We move those guys all over the field,” Holgorsen said before last Saturday’s open practice in Morgantown.

The No. 1 inside receiver is Daikiel Shorts, oddly a high school teammate of Smallwood’s their senior year at Eastern Christian in Elkton, Md.

The plan to convert Smallwood to slot/running back was actually in full swing last year.

“Everything Sims did last year, they had me doing behind him, so I really didn’t miss a beat,” Smallwood said.

Playing part time, Smallwood wound up rushing for 225 yards, but with a 5.7 yards per carry average that was better than even Sims’ 5.3. He also caught 11 passes for a 12.0 average, again better than the 11.0 average per catch Sims had.

This year they expect to use him a whole lot more in the passing game.

“I’ve been running a lot of routes. It’s just natural to me,” he said. “I like to catch the ball.”

There’s little doubt the coaching staff is elated with what Smallwood brings to the table.

“He’s versatile. We’re finding a lot of ways to get him the ball,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, almost gushing at the thought. “That kid’s skilled. He really is. We’ve gone through nine practices, and he’s got the mental capacity to do a lot of things. We’re trying to push the limits of what we can do with that kid. Right now we’re just trying to see what he can do. We’re lining him up everywhere.”

That will present certain problems for the defense, that is going to have to identify where he’s lined up as WVU continues to play at fast-forward speed.

Is he at tailback … and if so, is he there alone or is Dreamius Smith or Rushel Shell there with him? Is he in the slot? If so, is Shorts also in the other slot? Or is Jordan Thompson there?

For each formation WVU will have tendencies, and defenses have to figure out the lineup, then come up with a defense to counter the tendencies out of it.

It is not an accident that the Mountaineers have so many different styles of running backs with Smallwood, Smith, Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie.

“Some tailbacks are bigger-body guys. We want those different body types,” Dawson said. “We want what they call a true running back, who’s a bigger guy, and we want those guys who can play slot receiver and running back.”

This way they get the best two or three of their running backs on the field at the same time, which they feel gives them an advantage.

“Having the vertical threat at that inside receiver is important. I think we’ve got those guys, too. We’ve got guys who can make plays there,” Dawson said. “For instance, Daikiel. Last year, he played as a true freshman. His ability to break through now and gain more yards after the catch, it’s like a whole different person. That’s experience. That’s just reps.

“You’d like to get to the point in your program where you’re not asking a freshman to do what he had to do last year. If we could have redshirted that kid, how awesome would that have been? We didn’t have that luxury.”

Shorts worked during the off-season on improving his ability to get free after catching the ball.

And Smallwood, well, he just worked after what some perceived to be a really good freshman year, but one he wasn’t particularly happy with.

“I’m hard on myself. I did a lot of good things but I could have done a lot better,” he said. “I had an evaluation with coach. I gave him my evaluation. I said I didn’t think I finished the year good, and he told me not to sell myself short.”

But as soon as the season ended, he was the first guy on the team back in the weight room.

“I think you see that with a lot of kids who play early. You can put him and Daikiel in the same boat. When they went to high school together they only played like three or four games their senior year because they had a lot of games that got forfeited or whatever,” Dawson said.

“Then you’re asking a kid who played only three or four games his senior year to come in and play a whole season in the Big 12. Both of those kids tailed off a little because, hey, it’s a grind. It’s a grind for guys who are three-year vets or four-year vets,” Dawson continued

“That’s the bumps and bruises of playing young kids and gaining experience.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.